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Moon lander ‘alive and well’ after first US lunar landing since Apollo era

In World
February 24, 2024

The moon’s newest arrival was said to be “alive and well” a day after making the first US landing in half a century, but flight controllers were still trying to get a better handle on its bearings.

Intuitive Machines reported Friday that it’s communicating with its lander, Odysseus, and sending commands to acquire science data. But it noted: “We continue to learn more about the vehicle’s specific information” regarding location, overall health and positioning.

The Houston company was shooting for the south polar region, near the Malapert A crater, closer to the pole than anyone else so Nasa could scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. The mission was sponsored in large part by Nasa, whose experiments were on board. Nasa paid US$118 million for the delivery under a programme meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the Nasa experiments was pressed into service when the lander’s navigation system failed in the final few hours before touchdown. The lander took an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch to Nasa’s laser system.

“Odie is a scrapper,” mission director Tim Crain said late on Thursday via X, formerly Twitter.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle’s Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 metres) away.

Chinese and US astronomers to view universe through Odysseus’ eyes

With lingering uncertainty over Odysseus’ position on the moon, “getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us”, Henderson said.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just a week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander, before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under Nasa’s commercial lunar services programme. Last month, Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the US had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out Nasa’s famed moon-landing programme in December 1972. Nasa’s new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

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